This recording, made in 2006, is described as the Tokyo Quartet's valedictory recording. They have now retired after a very successful and lengthy career but with a discography that is relatively sparse compared to other groups of similar duration. Collectors of this ensemble will be sad to see them retire but can be assured that this recording is of an entirely appropriate high quality in every respect.
The disc is marketed as an hybrid SACD and as such it can be played by conventional CD players in stereo or as surround sound for those with the amplification and SACD player. The surround sound option offers the best sound, being very realistic and involving. The stereo only option is perfectly capable of competing with the best of stereo alternatives. The actual sound is sumptuous in nature and there is no hint of aural abrasiveness which can afflict recordings of string quartets.
The Dvorak is a very fine performance with plenty of lyrical focus throughout but underpinned by a tight rhythmical hold which gives dramatic bite. This is addition to the more obvious folk elements of the piece. The third movement has a nice lilt but it is the final movement which really grabs the attention in that respect with a pace that absolutely dances and carries all before it in an irrepressible drive.
The Smetana shares many of the same characteristics and the dance element is never far from the fore especially in the earlier parts of the quartet. Nevertheless the work has a less pronounced folk element than the Dvorak's quartet and this must be seen as a serious reflection of the problems that Smetana was having with his deteriorating hearing at the time of writing the quartet. The title 'From my Life' leaves the listener in no doubt as to the intention behind this composition. In this particular performance the dramatic nature of the piece is made very clear without losing sight of the lyrical and dancing folk elements. Even so, the precise point where Smetana illustrates the high sound in his ear that he was constantly experiencing and that eventually would result in his complete deafness still comes as a shock. It is that awareness of the drama behind the piece that marks this performance out.
This disc marks a superb end to a distinguished career from this fine group of players. It benefits from excellent sound, particularly when heard in full SACD surround mode, and deserves to be considered very seriously for those for whom the coupling is attractive. Collectors of the Tokyo Quartet recordings will not need to hesitate.
As a long-time devotee of this quartet, I knew I had to have this. Quite why this 2006 recording was kept back only eventually to be released as a valedictory celebration before their disbandment and retirement after so many years, is a mystery to me, but I nonetheless welcome its appearance. I reviewed in glowing terms their previous release of the Brahms quintets with Jon Nakamatsu on piano, made in 2011, and had no reason to expect anything other than another triumph; so it proves.
Obviously the supremacy of their instruments, the famous "Paganini Quartet" of Stradivarius instruments, partially explains the depth and resonance of their sound but that only partly accounts for the special beauty, homogeneity and flawless intonation of this justly renowned quartet; they are simply terrific artists of impeccable musicality and taste. The coupling is hardly original but played this well, it's a recommendation safe as houses to any budding or seasoned collector. I still await the re-release for the first time on CD of their exceptional K.465, which I have obtained privately, expertly transferred from LP, but meanwhile this is as good as any introduction to the Tokyo's art.
Some musicians mellow too much and lose their edge or drive as they age, but I hear no slackening here: the Smetana is as sharp and driven as you could wish, as Dvorak's "furiants", but the old aureate tone is still very much in evidence when they caress the plaintive Slovakian folk melodies. Wonderful playing.